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Interview: Sir David Attenborough on 3d

19 December 2011

After spending time with Sir David Attenborough, it’s hard to imagine that he will be 86 next May. At an age when most have long retired, he is still making and enthusing about programmes that are right at the cutting edge of television production.

Following on from his hugely acclaimed Frozen Planet, Attenborough’s next two projects are both in 3d. The Bachelor King 3d, which traces the journey of one King Penguin from awkward adolescent to adult, plays on Sky 3d this Christmas. Kew 3d, a series set in the Royal Botanic Gardens, is also in the works.

Both projects build on the success of the Bafta winning Flying Monsters 3d, which he made with Atlantic Productions. Bachelor King promises to be very different. “Flying Monsters got a lot of punch from cgi,” says Attenborough, speaking exclusively with Televisual just ahead of a Bafta preview screening of Bachelor King. “Well, there is no cgi in this, so we are taking the 3d one step further.”

The subject matter of the film was itself partly dictated by the restrictions that still hamper 3d shooting. “We learnt on Flying Monsters that having an immobile camera that takes four men to shift and forty minutes to change the lens is a huge problem.” Such a camera set up would be challenging for a natural history film where the traditional way of working, adds Attenborough with a smile, is “to crawl around keeping out of the way and, if you are lucky, to get close to some rare creature doing something unmentionable.”

So it was important to pick a subject that was “predictably there and that wasn’t going to run away,” says Attenborough, especially with a crew of 12 working on the programme at a cost of thousands of pounds a day. Attenborough suggested to his producer partner Anthony Geffen that filming take place in South Georgia, home to king penguins, three ton elephant seals and the biggest flying bird in the world, the albatross. “The marvellous thing about all three of them is that you could go at a time of year when they would all be there. And most of them, in fact all of them, would not be put off by a crew of 12.”

But is this enough to attract audiences who have just enjoyed Frozen Planet?  Attenborough practically leaps out of his seat as he explains why it is: “If you get elephant seals rearing up 8ft high and fighting one another, if you see an albatross set off with a 12ft wing span, if you see penguins – not just one of them but thousands of them receding into the distance, I assure you in 3d it is going to look good.”

Attenborough himself takes a realistic view about the future of the 3d format, which has been relentlessly hyped by set manufacturers as the next big thing but has so far failed to take off with the viewing public or be adopted as a distribution platform by many broadcasters. He believes 3d will be reserved for ‘important shows’ only, rather than everyday viewing. “I doubt whether news bulletins will be in 3d,” he says.

For the moment, it also remains hugely expensive to make 3d programmes. Technical problems hinder the format too, notably that 3d cameras can’t use very long lenses. “If you went to a natural history cameraman and said, ‘I want you to make a really spectacular, hard hitting natural history film but you are not allowed to use more than a 75mm lens,’ he would say you are mad. Because these days natural history filming is absolutely at the top level. Frozen Planet has raised the bar – you have to be as good as that and then go to 3d. You can’t be 50% lower than that and say it won’t matter because it is in three dimensions.”

But he does offer the following advice to would be 3d pioneers, bringing to bear his years of experience as a programme maker and also as a former controller of BBC2. “Let’s not forget that programmes are about subjects, narrative, plot and an intrinsic story. Don’t just say, ‘I am going to do a 3d programme about swings and roundabouts and skyrockets unless you have got a story.” He also urges programme makers to be disciplined about the use of 3d. “In Flying Monsters we didn’t allow anything to come out of the screen until the very last shot – and then wallop. But if you do it within the first two minutes and every five minutes, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Beyond all of his advice, however, it’s Attenborough’s passion for the format that is so striking. As he describes the making of his current project, Kew 3d, it becomes obvious why he is working in 3d at this stage of his career. “The trick of a flower bud opening in time lapse, which was invented in the 1920s, is always mesmerising. But in 3d it is simply breathtaking,” he says. “You can’t stop watching it. It is just unbelievably beautiful in three dimensions. When we got the first time lapse back of flowers it was just wonderful. We were all sitting there looking at it in the cutting room and our jaws were just sagging at how beautiful it was.”

1952 Joins the BBC in the Television Talks Department
1954 Launches Zoo Quest
1965 Controller of BBC2
1969 BBC director of programmes
1973 Returns to programme making
1979 Writes and presents the 13-part 
Life on Earth
1984 The Living Planet
1985 Knighted
1990 The Trials of Life
1993 Life in the Freezer
1995 The Private 
Life of Plants
1998 The Life of Birds
2001 The Blue Planet
2002 The Life of Mammals
2005 Life in the Undergrowth
2006 Planet Earth
2008 Life in Cold Blood
2009 Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life
2010 Flying Monsters 3d

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